US Vice Presidential Debate: Five Key Takeaways

On 7 October, Vice President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris went head-to-head in the first and only vice presidential debate.

Interview Published 8 October 2020 3 minute READ

Lyndsey Jefferson spoke with experts across Chatham House about the key policy issues discussed in the debate. 

The coronavirus crisis remains front and centre in the debates. How do you think voters will respond to the candidates’ positions on handling the pandemic?

Leslie Vinjamuri and Anar Bata: Last night’s debate left no doubt that the pandemic is the number one issue driving this election. 

Kamala Harris highlighted the devastating impact on America’s public health - over 210,000 Americans have died from the virus. She also pointed to the high economic costs, including the extraordinary unemployment rate with over 30 million Americans out of work.

Mike Pence defended his administration’s handling of the pandemic, applauding President Trump’s decision to suspend travel from China, emphasizing the increase of testing, and claiming tens of millions of vaccines would be available by the end of the year. 

But despite all of this, the US still suffers from a disproportionately high death rate. Moderator Susan Page noted the US death toll, as a percentage of the population, is much higher than other wealthy nations, and is 2.5 times higher than Canada’s death toll.

Harris spoke directly to the audience, reiterating the lack of transparency by the Trump administration when they were first informed of the virus back in January. She argued that ‘this administration has forfeited their right to re-election’ based on their handling of COVID-19. 

As President Trump currently recovers from the virus, the importance of the vice president’s office cannot be underestimated. 

Foreign policy often takes a backseat to domestic issues in election debates. Was last night’s debate any different?  

Leslie Vinjamuri: The world beyond America’s borders featured prominently in the debate and to moderator Susan Page’s credit, she insisted the candidates talk about China.

China will continue to exert powerful influence over global markets and is also likely to dominate America’s national security strategy. But last night’s debate on China operated far below the level of grand strategy.

Instead, China continues to be talked about through the prism of a partisan blame game.

Harris argued that America has lost the trade war with China and reminded viewers of the distributional effects of the tariff wars.

That both candidates talked about the ‘Chinese Communist Party’ is another sign of the ideological turn that discussion of China has taken in US foreign policy during the pandemic. 

Americans, and the rest of the world, may have to wait until the election is over for leaders to have a serious discussion about the China challenge. 

Did either candidate touch on America’s role in the world? 

Heather Williams: ‘Allies’ probably wasn’t on any debate bingo cards but views on America’s allies ended up as a stark comparison between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence. 

Harris raised the issue about America’s credibility on the international stage. She cited a recent poll that found Western Europeans have more confidence in Chinese leader Xi Jingping than President Trump. 

This distrust is rooted in Trump’s questioning of the value of NATO, withdrawal from arms control agreements seen as essential to European security, and admiration for Vladimir Putin.  

Re-establishing credibility with America’s allies should be the top foreign policy priority of a Biden administration. America’s global leadership is rooted in these alliances, and they are a key component of US national security. Harris reflected as much in her vision to ‘keep your word to your friends’ and keep your adversaries in check. 

Conversely, Pence pointed to Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani as evidence of the administration’s commitment to its friends. Beyond that, allies seem unlikely to be a priority for a second Trump administration.

What were the candidates’ positions on the future of US climate policy?

Sam Geall and Tim Benton: ‘With regard to climate change, the climate is changing,’ said Mike Pence, ‘but the issue is what’s the cause and what do we do about it?’ In so doing, he rejected the established science on the causes of climate change, much as President Trump has done. 

Whilst rejecting the scientific evidence, he made the contradictory claim that President Trump will ‘continue to listen to the science’.  On the other hand, Harris made clear she intends to follow the science, but also signalled her candidate’s support for fracking.

The unwillingness to tackle climate change in these debates is increasingly out of step with American popular opinion. 

More than two-thirds of American voters are worried about climate change, and 65% say they are more likely to support a candidate who supports 100% clean electricity by 2035. 70% support US participation in the Paris Agreement. (Biden supports 100% clean electricity by 2035 and wants the US to re-join the Paris Agreement; Trump favours neither.)

They are right to care. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), will take place in Glasgow next year, at a critical juncture. According to the UN Environment Programme, countries will need to collectively increase fivefold their existing commitments to reduce emissions over the next decade. 

What the US does over the coming year will likely determine the trajectory the parties to the conference take – and, ultimately, whether the world succeeds in averting catastrophic climate change.

Mike Pence argued that the Green New Deal would ‘crush American energy and jobs’. Kamala Harris seemed to distance herself from the Green New Deal, but claimed that a Biden administration would invest in green jobs. What role does renewable energy play in America’s economic recovery? 

Megan Greene: Mike Pence is right to highlight that a Green New Deal will result in fewer energy jobs. But the oil industry is likely to shed jobs anyway, and the Biden-Harris ticket has put forward a way to not only address climate change but to upgrade the US labour market.

A shakeout on the oil patch is inevitable, with high-cost or highly indebted small producers taken over by larger, solvent companies. This will leave the industry leaner and more productive, but will inevitably lead to job losses.

The Biden-Harris ticket aims to pivot away from the oil patch to generate jobs to retool the economy for sustainability. This approach hits two birds with one stone—it addresses the impending climate crisis and also creates high wage, high hour jobs. 

For the past decade, the majority of jobs created in the US have been low wage, low hour service jobs. Workers in these roles saw few wage gains during the longest economic recovery in history, and were among the first to be laid off when the pandemic hit.

The lack of wage growth in the US underpins the notion that Americans cannot expect to have a higher standard of living than their parents and has arguably fuelled the populism that swept President Trump into power. 

The US labour market is in need of an upgrade towards higher quality jobs. Doing this while addressing climate change is a no brainer.